There's an argument to be made that maybe I shouldn't spend any time telling you about The Unfinished Swan. What makes this game so special is what you don't know going in and anything I say will only rob you of the sense of discovery. All you need to know is that The Unfinished Swan is an incredible first-person platformer/puzzle game with an emotional story and always-changing gameplay.
Of course, my editor would flip out if I handed in a review consisting of only one paragraph.[Editor's Note: That's a bit of an understatement :)]
He'll tell me that this isn't a Call of Duty sequel; consumers need to know what they're getting themselves into. Perhaps he's right, but if you have any interest in buying The Unfinished Swan, I implore you to stop reading this review.
Told in the style of a children's book, you play a young boy who feels incomplete. After his mother dies, Monroe is sent to an orphanage with only one piece of treasure from his past -- a painting of an unfinished swan. It's here that he yearns for a better life, a place far away from the loneliness he feels. It's in his darkest moment that he discovers a door that whisks him off into mysterious new world.
As it turns out, this new world was created by a very meticulous King. This is a King that liked things a certain way, to the point of alienating himself. When the townspeople started to use color, he put a stop to that and started painting everything white ... even the shadows. It was immaculate, to the point of being blinding.
We enter this world unable to see. Literally. Everything is so white that it's impossible to make out walls, stairs and other everyday objects. To give you a sense, the game is white to the point where I honestly didn't know if it had even started. And then I started hitting buttons, anything, praying my system hadn't frozen. Much to my surprise, Monroe (now in a first-person point of view) threw a small glob of ink. Suddenly I could see the walls, stairs and table.
Before long I'm throwing ink everywhere, trying my hardest to make heads or tails of this bright white world. It may be hard to see, but it's clear that somebody spent a lot of time creating a majestic world that only they can appreciate. I stumble out of the whiteness to see the outside world. There in front of me is a giant labyrinth leading to a giant castle. That must be where I'm going.
The world of The Unfinished Swan opens up in ways I wasn't expecting. What at first seems like a game about throwing ink quickly turns into something else. The second chapter does away with the ink entirely, instead opting for handfuls of water. Now you'll be able to grow vines that will allow you to ascend the giant tower.
But just when you think you have this world figured out, we're sent in an entirely different direction. My favorite stage is the third chapter, which trades white buildings for the darkest of night. Here you'll have to manipulate light sources to make it through the river. And that's a just start of what turns out to be an emotional climax. I would go on, but I already feel like I've said too much.
Unlike Portal and Quantum Conundrum, The Unfinished Swan isn't much of a puzzle game. There are a few brain teasers you'll have to figure out, but this is mostly a game about platforming challenges. There aren't any enemies, though you certainly don't want to stay in the darkness for too long or jump in the water. With a short running time and easy challenges, it's clear that the developer wants players to see it through in only one or two sittings.
What the game lacks in difficulty it makes up for in variety. There are moments late in The Unfinished Swan that hit emotional triggers you rarely see in video games. Even without the monsters, there's a lot of "Where the Wild Things Are" flowing through this experience. It does not go unnoticed that the King's world mimics the complex emotions of an orphan kid. By the end it's easy to see things from both Monroe and the King's point of view.
In that sense, The Unfinished Swan is an absolute masterpiece. Every inch of the narrative is told in an original way, rarely treading on familiar territory. That's rare in a world filled with countless first-person puzzlers. Every few minutes I was seeing something for the first time, all the way through to the clever credit sequence. It's a marvel that proves that there are still people out there with fresh voices.
But as creative as all this is, I can't help but feel a little disappointed by the low difficulty. There was never a point where I felt stuck or challenged in any way. The platforming is as basic as it gets and there aren't many traditional puzzles to solve. The game introduces an element late in the game that could have easily led to some wickedly clever 3D puzzles, but alas it's used for only a few minutes and never in a way that will taxes your brain.
While it may seem a little too abstract at first, The Unfinished Swan turns out to be an incredibly accessible first-person experience. This is the type of game you immediately want to talk about, even if you have nothing to say. There are a lot of great ideas here; I can't wait to see what kind of adventure Giant Sparrow takes us next.
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